Did you Say Your Name was Shuvalkin, Kafka, Walter Benjamin, or is this a Prank?


In the last two blog entries, I have been looking into Benjamin’s “Vestibule” aphorism in which he recounts a dream where he discovers his name inscribed in Goethe’s guestbook.  To understand what this meant to Benjamin, I discussed Benjamin’s understanding of what a name is and why it is significant.  As I noted, Benjamin saw the name as revelatory.  For him, it constitutes a link between God and man.  And, as I pointed out, the name is more about relation and less about content.  But there is a twist.

Although Benjamin is asked to sign his name, he realizes it has already been signed.  In other words, a trick has been played on him

But the shock is not simply that his name was already written but that it was written “in big, unruly, childish letters.”  Benjamin is, as I said yesterday, S(c)h(l)ocked by this prank.  To be sure, Benjamin saw something very deep in this prank.  As I noted, he discovered his calling to Schlemieldom.  In a “man’s world” (literally, in Goethe’s world, his house) it seems Benjamin is a child.  He is doomed to being a man who is thought of as a child.  The ‘shape’ of his name, so to speak, indicates this.

It’s interesting to note that the Zohar, one of the greatest books of the Kabbalah, which Gershom Scholem, in part, translated into German, has many sections which analyze the shapes of letters.  From these shapes, from the way they are written, we can learn secrets.

Elliot Wolfson, in his book Aleph, Mem, Tau: Kabbalistic Musings on Time, Truth, and Death, notes the passage in the Zohar in which “each of the letters presents itself before God in an effort to be chosen as the primary instrument through which the world would be created”(159).  Wolfson delicately unpacks this passage from the Zohar so as to show that each letter deals with time, truth, and death.

Aleph says it is the first letter of the word Emet (which in Hebrew means truth), but Tav says it is the last letter of Emet (and the Hebrew alphabet) and should be granted the privilege of being the letter through which the world is created (160).  But, Wolfson notes, Tav is disqualified because it is the last letter of the word Met (death).

However, as Wolfson argues, the letters taken together are the beginning (Aleph), middle (Mem), and the End (Tav).  Together, they designate time and together (the past, present, and future) make the truth.  The word, truth contains the word death, but it also opens up to the future as the truth-to-come.  Wolfson correctly notes, resonating the Apocalyptic elements in the Kabbalah, that the first letter of the Torah is Bet not Aleph.  And this reflection opens us up to a question: if the world was created with an Aleph (of the word Emet – truth) why isn’t the first letter of the Torah an Aleph?

This is the rub: the Aleph and the truth are concealed and will be revealed in the future, in the messianic age.  Meanwhile, we live in the world of the second letter which conceals the first.  In this world, truth (or for Wolfson, the truth of time) is distorted.

Walter Benjamin was quite aware of this teaching from the Zohar.  From Scholem and his own studies, he learned how the letters of the name, their shape and arrangement, disclose a secret that can be glimpsed in the present and seen to be coming from the future.  Building on Wolfson’s work, I would call this a truth-to-come.

Knowing this, how do we interpret Benjamin’s revelation of a name (his name) that was already written in clumsly children’s letters.  Was the disclosure of this prank a revelation of the truth-to-come or, rather, a distortion of the truth-to-come?  To be sure, this was the disclosure of Benjamin as a man-child (as a schlemiel).  But what does the shape of the schlemiel’s name have to do with the truth-to-come?

In the very beginning of Benjamin’s essay on Kafka, he returns to this question.

In the beginning of the essay, entitled “Potemkin,” Benjamin recounts a story of how Grigory Potemkin, the 18th century Russian military ruler, statesman, and beloved of Catherine the Great, went into a great depression.   (As a side note, Catherine gave Potemkin the title of the Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.)

As Benjamin recounts, Potemkin’s depression “lasted form an extraordinary length of time and brought about serious difficulties; in the offices documents piled up that required Potemkin’s signature”(112, Illuminations).

Who could get him to sign his name?

Benjamin notes that “an unimportant little clerk named Shuvalkin” comes to the rescue.  In other words, a simpleton (that is, a schlemiel of sorts) comes to their aid.   He doesn’t try to reason with Potemkin; rather, he acts: “Shuvalkin stepped up to writing desk, dipped a pen and ink, and without saying a word pressed it into Potemkin’s hands while putting the documents on his knees”(112).

Potemkin signs all of them.   And Shuvalkin walks into the anteroom, “waving the papers triumphantly,” as the councilors gather around to see.  And what happens is astounding: “Breathlessly they bent over them.  No one spoke a word; the whole group seemed paralyzed.”

When Shuvalkin looked in to see what happened – to see what had “upset” them and put them into a stupor, he sees that every one of the signatures has his name signed on it: “Shuvalkin…Shuvalkin…Shuvalkin.”

Benjamin sees this story as a “herald racing two hundred years ahead of Kafka’s work.” And then he adds that “the enigma which beclouds it is Kafka’s enigma.”

Benjamin then goes on to substitute Kafka’s character K for Shuvalkin.

These rhetorical movements are very hasty and to simply go along with them, without prying into the esoteric, would be clumsy.  Benjamin is telling us that Shuvalkin is a herald who goes “ahead of Kafka’s work.”  To be sure, this implies that Shuvalkin, a schlemiel, may even be (temporally) ahead of Benjamin’s work.  Moreover, he says that it is Kafka’s enigma but, in truth, it is also his.  In fact, he and Kafka share the enigma of Shuvalkin, which is the enigma of having one’s name already signed by the Other. Signed in such a way that the shape of the letters and their arrangement indicate that the bearer of the signature is a fool.

After the last three blog entries on Benjamin and the name, I hope that by now it will become evident to the blog-readers out there that a name is taking shape.  And that name, Benjamin and Kafka’s secret name, is a name that they are signed with and that name is the name of the man-child or the schlemiel.

There are many questions which come with this enigma and with this parable.  What does it mean that Kafka and Benjamin are the subjects of a prank?  And what does it mean that the “herald” has gone on ahead of Kafka?  Is he ahead of “us” as well?  I say “us” because everyone in the community, as is evidenced by the Potemkin parable, may be affected by the prank – that is, by the signature Shuvlakin.  But to say this, as Benjamin seems to suggest, wouldn’t we be entering the realms of ontology, politics, and religion?

Given this suggestion, can we say that we all share the same childishly written (and childish) name?  And instead of the name of God, as the name we all share (or the name Emet – truth, which Wolfson ventures in his reading of the Zohar), why is the name we share a name whose letters are childishly written?  Why is “our” name the name of a man-child?  Is this, as the Kabbalah might say, the “truth” (Emet) to come?  Or is it a prank?

All of these questions have not, in the history of Benjamin studies, been posed or discussed.  They are questions that come up if you read Benjamin (or Kafka for that matter) as he wanted to be read – as one would read a parable, midrashically.  I will be developing these ideas further in my book on the Schlemiel.  Nonetheless, I have decided to share some of these childish ‘secrets’ on this blog before my book makes the light of the day.  To be sure, there are a few more secrets about Benjamin and the Schlemiel that I may tell in this blog before I pass on to other schlemiels and schlemiel-topics, but I may have to withhold them or encode them in the very near future. Wink Wink!

Remember, you heard it here first – at SchlemielTheory!  More fun-to-come!

After Purim, Whither Prophesy? The Legacy of the “Hidden Tradition” (And a New Schlemiel-Anniversary)

In the blog entry entitled “The Schlemiel as Prophet (Take 1),” I cited a passage from the Talmudic tractate Baba Batra (12b). The Midrashic passage made the claim that prophesy passed on from the prophets to children and fools. What I didn’t note is the date that prophesy ended: it ended on Purim. Yesterday. This means that today is the anniversary of the first day after the end-of-prophesy.

But what begins after the end of prophesy?

The answer to this question is not so simple. The Midrash from Baba Batra says that after prophesy ends it passes on to fools and children, but Talmud Yoma 39a says that end of prophesy is the beginning of the Oral Tradition.

Here is the passage:

Why is Esther compared to the dawn? To teach you that just like the dawn is the end of the night, so to is Esther likened to the end of all Miracles. But what about Hanukkah? We are talking about miracles mentioned in the prophets. (My translation)

Here, miracles are linked to prophesy. And the reason why Hanukkah is not included within the purview of prophesy is because the Book of Esther is the last recorded prophetic book in the cannon of the written Torah (the book of Prophets – Neveim). The miracles of Hanukkah, which happened chronologically after Purim, are not a part of that cannon and prophetic lineage.

In one of his reflections on Purim, the 18h century Hasidic Rabbi Levi-Yitzchak of Berdichev, who the Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem regarded as one of the most important Hasidic mystics, addresses the future of prophesy after Purim.

In this reflection, he begins by citing the line which says that the Jewish people “fulfilled and received”(Esther 9:26) the Torah on Purim. In a Midrash from Tractate Shabbath 88a, we learn that this passage marks a distinction between the acceptance of the Torah through Moses and its acceptance and fulfillment during Purim.

Upon receiving the Torah in Exodus 24:7, the Jews said “we will do and we will understand”(Na’sah v’nishma). In contrast, the Book of Esther says that the Jewish people “fulfilled and received it.” The obvious question is why is the acceptance of the Torah on Purim different? The answer some Rabbis give is that this reception, on Purim, is out of love while the first reception of the Torah was out of fear.

To illustrate, one of the Midrashim in Shabbath 88a details how God turned the mountain over the Jewish people “like a tub” and said if you do not accept it “here will be your grave.”

Rabbi Levi-Yitzchak of Berdichev reads “fulfilled and received” differently:

Mordechai was the last of the prophets as it says in the Talmud (Yoma 29a). We find that until Mordehcai the light of the Written Torah shined. From Mordechai on, prophesy stopped and the light of the Oral Torah began to shine. From Mordechai on begins the Knesseth G’dolah and the canonization of the prayer book. And this is the meaning of “they fulfilled and received” (the Torah): they received and accepted amongst themselves the Oral Torah from Mordechai onwards. Prophesy had ended and the oral tradition began because, in truth, all the time that there was prophesy, that prophesy was written down. When prophesy ended, it was no longer written down and the light of the Oral Torah took precedence. (D’roosh Purim; my translation)

What I find so fascinating about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s reading is that he, a mystic, would not mention anything about the “other” new beginning of prophesy; namely, that it is now taken on by children and fools. Moreover, many Hasidim see Purim as a holiday which is all about “turning the world over,” a holiday where foolishness is deemed, to some extent, prophetic. Nonetheless, he bears no mention of this other post-prophetic beginning.

By doing this, he is, in effect, teaching us that this tradition of passing prophesy on to fools and children is either not important or it is a “hidden tradition.” It is, to some extent, esoteric.

The term “hidden tradition” is an expression used by Hannah Arendt to describe the history of pariahs and schlemiels which, for her, starts with Heinrich Heine, in Germany (not in Eastern Europe, with the Hasidim or with Yiddish folklore and literature and not in the pre-modern period). I’d argue that Arendt could have gone back much further so as to understand the beginning of this “hidden tradition” of the schlemiel; namely, to the passage from Baba Batra I cited in “The Prophet as Schlemiel (Take 1).”

The question of what begins after the end of prophesy seems to have two answers that lead us in two different directions. The first answer, the one cited in Talmud Yoma and reiterated by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, is that after prophesy ends the oral tradition (the Talmud) begins. Now, Revelation (not prophesy, which is based on Revelation) is confined to learning and, as it says in the Talmud, the “four cubits of Halacha”(Jewish law). The other answer is that after prophesy ends a new type of prophesy arises, one that is given to fools, children, and, as I noted in previous blogs, the man-child, the schlemiel.

Perhaps we can offer a third answer and say that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev was hinting at this other answer? After all, what is an Oral tradition? If the Hasidim took the Kabbalah to be the Oral tradition, why wouldn’t they include, within that category, the prophesy of fools, children, and schlemiels? Don’t Hasidim record them in many of their stories? Is the schlemiel – in real life – and in its fictional life participating in this hidden tradition? Are Hasidic stories on the schlemiel parts of this hidden tradition? Were they meant to be esoteric?

The answers to these questions are thought-provoking since schlemiels were well-known to all Hasidim and to all non-Hasidim in Eastern Europe. They weren’t esoteric. However, their legacy, their secret, so to speak, is. It is a “hidden tradition” of sorts.

What new tradition begins today, then, the end of Purim? What new tradition should we celebrate on this anniversary?

On the Schlemiel Theory blog, let’s do something foolish. Let’s follow the Midrash in Talmud Yoma and declare the day after Purim to be the end of one kind of prophesy and the beginning of another! This can be the anniversary of the schlemiel’s birth into the Jewish prophetic tradition – the prophetic tradition of exile and the oblique, comic prophet. Today can be the anniversary of the “hidden tradition.”

Happy schlemiel-anniversary!